All posts by Eric Zweig

Our House Is a Very, Very, Very Fine House…

I shouldn’t be doing this. It’s 11:25 pm on Thursday night as I start writing this. I’m exhausted. I went to bed two hours ago, but I can’t sleep. (Odie just came in. He was asleep on my bed when I decided to come up here and do this. He sleeps light.) So, please forgive any typos, or rambling…

My house — Our house — has been for sale since late April. I’m expecting an offer, perhaps as soon as today as you’re reading this. My thinking is that it won’t be for as much as I’m hoping to get, so I guess we’ll have to play the negotiating game. I’m not really looking forward to that.

It’s been an emotional time, as you can probably imagine. People say, “you shouldn’t do anything major for a year” after someone dies. I suppose that’s good advice … but the truth is, Barbara and I had discussed what the other one might do with the house if one of us died almost from the moment we bought it.

It was always more house than made sense for the two of us, but we loved it. We said to ourselves, “who knows how long we’ll get here? Two years? Ten? But it’ll be worth it.” We got almost 12 years here together … and it was! But now it’s time — for so many reasons — for me to go.

I’ve felt for a while like things are in limbo. Like my life won’t really start again until I’m into someplace new and working on something that I really want to do again. (I’ve got a new kids hockey book due out in the fall, and I’ve just started work on another kid’s book — football, this time — that’ll keep me busy for a while … but the truth is, I’m getting a little tired of doing the same old thing.) Still, it doesn’t mean I’m really ready to leave here yet. I don’t feel uncomfortable, or even sad, in the house by myself; I just know I can’t stay much longer. I won’t be leaving Owen Sound. I’m still very happy here. I just need some place smaller and more manageable for me on my own.

Of course, it hasn’t been easy. Just “staging” the house was emotional. Getting rid of the things I’ve gotten rid off. (I have a friend sort of “coaching” me through it. It takes her a while to talk me into doing anything. When I finally do, I go at it with gusto … and I’m happy for a while, then I’m sad, but then I get over it. And then it all happens again. The actual move, when it comes, is going to be harder still. But it’s something I have to do.

People say (I suppose the same “people” I mentioned above!) that selling a house is stressful. It is! Which may sound strange considering the stress I was under at this same time last year. But, in truth, a year ago today as you’re reading this — July 19, 2018 –– was a good day, if a somewhat strange one.

Barbara had been on her “chemo break” for close to a month and was feeling as good as she had at pretty much any time since her diagnosis in March. On July 19, we went to Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto, where we’d been sent by our oncologist in Owen Sound for a second opinion. It was all very interesting. I’ve written a little about this before, so I’ll say only that we learned a lot more than we had known previously, and it seemed very encouraging. (Over the last 11 months, I’ve read and re-read the notes the Princess Margaret doctors sent back to Owen Sound, and looked at the test results. I’ve come to believe that Barbara was actually a lot sicker than anyone was letting on. Still, no one seemed to think that the end would come as quickly as it did. Barely another three weeks.) The next day, we had a lovely time at Edwards Gardens with Barbara’s son Josh and Danielle and our granddaughter. As I’ve said before, it was the last truly care-free day…

So, that’s where I’m at these days. I’ll probably write some sort of update after the house has sold and I’ve made my move.

But, honestly, as I’ve said in many of these more personal posts over the last few months— and despite the way this probably reads — I think I’m doing quite well. Still, sometimes I feel the need to write something like this. And now it’s 12:46 in the morning, so it’s time to go to sleep.

We The North

You’d never call me a Raptors fan, but I’m glad they won … and I’m particularly happy for their fans. It’s a lot of fun when your team wins. As Nuke Laloosh says in Bull Durham (a movie Barbara loved, and a line we quoted often) “It’s, like, better than losing!” So, good for the Raptors, and good for basketball fans all across Canada.

I admit, I was a doubter pretty much right up until they won it in Game 6 last Thursday. (I’m not so disinterested that I don’t know their past history of playoff defeats!) I’d been watching a little since the Philadelphia series, but not very closely. In fact, the championship game is now the only Raptors game I’ve ever watched from start to finish … including the one I attended many years ago.

The crowd at Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square is reflected in the
Larry O’Brien Trophy and Kawhi Leonard’s NBA Finals MVP Trophy.

I think the Raptors just came along too late for me. I used to really love basketball. Though I never actually saw them live, I remember the Buffalo Braves and their games in Toronto when I was a kid. I knew who Bob McAdoo was when he was winning scoring titles. I really started paying attention as a teenager, with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in the NCAA championship in 1979 and was hooked when their Lakers and Celtics teams were battling for titles throughout the ’80s. But by the time the Raptors entered the NBA in 1995, it was too late for me. I was with Barbara and helping to raise Amanda. It was nothing they did. I still watched a ton of baseball, and hockey was becoming my regular “day job.” I was happy — and I didn’t have any interest in more sports or another team.

Amanda and Barbara were happy to be Blue Jays fans, though they didn’t care much about the Leafs. I did take Amanda to the Raptors Fanfest in January of 1999 after the NBA lockout … but that was pretty much it for basketball.

Although I’m not really a Raptors fan, I’m not truly a basketball band-wagon jumper either. So, I think that I’m allowed to say that it annoys me that so many American commentators seem to think that basketball in Canada didn’t exist before the Raptors! That used to bug me about the Blue Jays too. We had the Maple Leafs baseball team in Toronto from 1896 to 1967. My parents – especially my mother – grew up as huge baseball fans! As for basketball, we had a hoop in our driveway 40 years ago, and I played on a team in Grade Six. (I was terrible, and never played for our school teams in Junior High or High School, but we had them!) I know my Uncle Gerry, who recently turned 90, played basketball when he was in high school. (When Jews were inner city kids, basketball was a Jewish game!)

The Bond Purple Raiders from Owen Sound were Provincial basketball champions.

Everyone seems to know that James Naismith, who invented basketball in 1891, was a Canadian. And many know that the first NBA game in 1946 (when the league was actually called the Basketball Association of America) was played at Maple Leaf Gardens, where the Toronto Huskies hosted the New York Knicks. That’s really it for pro basketball in Canada before the Raptors, but it’s not like the sport was unknown here! It was played by boys and girls, men and women, in clubs and in schools, since the very beginning. Google the Edmonton Grads, if you’ve never heard of them.

One of my favorite images in the Ross family collection is this picture of
Art Ross with the Crescent basketball team, senior champions of the
Westmount Amateur Athletic Association in Montreal during the winter of 1902–03.

With that in mind, I was agreeable when a producer from CTV News Channel asked me to talk about the historic significance of the Raptors’ victory. Perhaps you saw it? (But probably not!) Anyway, three or four minutes on TV go by so quickly, I barely had any time to discuss anything beyond the comparisons with the Blue Jays winning the World Series. So, if you’re interested, you can read this (slightly bulked up) exchange below between me and the producer to get a sense of what I really hoped to talk about…

(Oh, and by the way, I was disappointed that I didn’t mention the Women’s World Cup and Canada’s team when Marcia MacMillan asked me what was worth watching now. Barbara never followed anything in sports the way she was briefly hooked on Christine Sinclair and the Canadian women’s team after watching that epic semifinal game with the U.S. at the 2012 London Olympics.)

Hi Eric,
 
Here are some talking points ahead of tomorrow’s interview at 10:45 AM EST
 
1.  How monumental is this victory?

It’s huge. As the only Canadian team in an American sport, it feeds into the love-hate relationship with our neighbours. When they validate our victory, it’s even bigger. Though the Leafs have a following all across the country, there is also that national hatred of Toronto. The Raptors and the Blue Jays seem to overcome that. The big thing is, how much does this do for basketball in Canada going forward… (See more in the “Where does it rank…” question.)

 
2.  How does it compare to other Toronto titles of the past?  The Leafs in 67 and the Blue Jays in 1992 and 1993?

The Leafs in 67 has become much bigger in retrospect than it was at the time, although upsetting Montreal in the Centennial year was noteworthy. Very similar to the Blue Jays (see below). But the next Leafs victory — if it ever comes — will be the big one! Though, of course, while the Leafs have a following all across the country, there is also that national hatred of Toronto. The Raptors and the Blue Jays seem to overcome that, as I said.

 
3.  Where does it rank amongst Canada’s greatest wins?  (please provide specific examples)

The most obvious comparison is the Blue Jays. I think this is at least as big as that. Possibly bigger. As I already said, as the only Canadian team in an American sport, it feeds into the love-hate relationship with our neighbours. When they validate our victory, it’s even bigger. And basketball is such a global game. No Grey Cup team has a shot at that, and, really no NHL team either.

The birth of the Blue Jays, and then the World Series win, increased interest in baseball all across Canada, and we’ve seen record numbers of Canadians in the Majors in recent years. The birth of the Raptors, and the success of Steve Nash, has already led to more and more Canadians making it to the NBA. This should only increase that in the years to come…

Other examples are the Canadian Olympic hockey wins for the men’s team both in 2002 and, especially in Vancouver in 2010. And, of course, Paul Henderson’s goal in 1972. But those only confirmed that we’re a hockey-crazy country. Just having a women’s national team that competes for World and Olympic titles (and often wins them) has been a huge boost for women’s hockey. More and more girls are playing … but it hasn’t done much to help the women’s professional game. 

Donovan Bailey, and the 4 x 100 relay team at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. Perhaps there’s no Andre de Grasse without that. (Ben Johnson would have been HUGE). Another historic comparison would be Mike Weir winning The Masters … though I think the Raptors and Blue Jays are bigger. Still, is there a Brooke Henderson without that?

The only other examples are really extremely old. There’s the Paris Crew, four rowers from New Brunswick who won Canada’s first World Championship in any sport when they won in Paris, France in 1867. (There was a Heritage Minute about that) Rowing was a huge sport internationally then, and during the 1880s, Toronto’s Ned Hanlon became a world champion and was probably the most famous athlete in the world.

 
4.  What do you think James Naismith would think about the Raptors success?

I’m sure he’d be pleased. But he’d probably wonder what took so long! Naismith (1861-1939) lived long enough to see how popular his sport became all around the world. In fact, basketball became hugely popular very quickly, even in Canada. Canada won bronze in the first official Olympic basketball tournament in 1936, and the sport was very popular in pockets of the country (particularly Windsor, ON and Victoria BC) much as hockey has always been popular in parts of the United States.

Who’s Gonna Win?

Game seven for the Stanley Cup! I haven’t been following the playoffs nearly as intently as I used to, but even if it’s hard to relate to hockey in June when your team isn’t in it (which it most definitely is) … well — it’s still Game seven for the Stanley Cup!

For those who’ve been following even less intently than I have, it’s the Boston Bruins versus the St. Louis Blues. The Blues — who joined the NHL as part of the expansion that saw the league double from six teams to 12 back in 1967–68 — have never won the Stanley Cup before. Boston has won it six times, with its first victory coming 90 years ago in 1929. Even so, the Bruins have never been part of a seventh game for all the marbles on home ice.

Art Ross drinks from the Stanley Cup bowl after Boston’s 1939 victory.

I heard someone mention on the radio the other day that this was the Bruins’ first Game seven at home, but that’s not quite as remarkable as it sounds. Boston did win its last Stanley Cup title in a seventh game in Vancouver back in 2011, but this is only the 17th Game seven since the Stanley Cup Final was expanded beyond a best-of-five format 80 years ago in the spring of 1939. (Boston beat Toronto 4 games to 1 that year.) In all that time, seven-game series have been the rarest of all possible outcomes:

Four games: 20 times
Five games: 19 times
Six games: 24 times
Seven games: 17 times

Boston becomes just the 12th NHL city to host a seventh game for the Stanley Cup. New York and Chicago (two other so-called “Original Six” cities) have only hosted the grand finale once. Montreal also has just one Game seven at home. Only the Red Wings and Maple Leafs have had a seventh game on home ice more than once. Toronto won the first Game seven for the Stanley Cup at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1942, and did so again in 1964. Detroit (who lost both of those games, by the way) has hosted the seventh game five times overall, winning three and losing two. Complete Game seven results are as follows:

June 15, 2011 Boston 4 at Vancouver 0
June 12, 2009 Pittsburgh 2 at Detroit 1
June 19, 2006 Edmonton 1 at Carolina 3
June 7, 2004 Calgary 1 at Tampa Bay 2
June 9, 2003, Anaheim 0 at New Jersey 3
June 9, 2001 New Jersey 1 at Colorado 3
June 14, 1994 Vancouver 2 at NY Rangers 3
May 31, 1987 Philadelphia 1 at Edmonton 3
May 18, 1971 Montreal 3 at Chicago 2
May 1, 1965 Chicago 0 at Montreal 4
April 24, 1964 Detroit 0 at Toronto 4
April 14, 1955 Montreal 1 at Detroit 3
April 16, 1954 Montreal 1 at Detroit 2 (OT)
April 23, 1950 NY Rangers 3 at Detroit 4 (2OT)
April 22, 1945 Toronto 2 at Detroit 1
April 18, 1942 Detroit 1 at Toronto 3

When the Bruins won their first Stanley Cup title in 1929, the final was just a best-of-three affair. Boston swept the New York Rangers in two straight.

Cartoon depictions of the Bruins 1929 victory in the Boston Globe.

Back in April, I wrote about the new playoff format that was introduced that year. It saw the Bruins, who’d finished first in the NHL’s American Division, play the Montreal Canadiens, who’d finished first in the Canadian Division, for one spot in the Stanley Cup Final, while the second and third place teams in those divisions played their only little mini playoff for the other spot. Even though the odd format had been introduced by Bruins owner Charles Adams and his general manager Art Ross, Boston sportswriters couldn’t help mocking the fact that the toughest series already seemed to be over and that the Rangers now had a chance to beat the Bruins for the Stanley Cup despite having lost five of six games to them during the regular season. A Boston Globe columnist known as “Sportsman” wrote before Game one on March 28 that, “The series starting tonight looks a good deal like an anticlimax to a season that has about run its course.”

And with the Bruins on the verge of clinching the Cup title in the second game the very next day, “Sportsman” wondered…

What would he possibly have made of hockey still being played in June?

But, hey, if you’re watching tonight (as I will be), enjoy the game!

Hockey Helmet History

I guess I’m lucky that my working life has mostly been an interesting one. I’ve always been a person who didn’t like to do anything he didn’t like to do — and I’ve mostly been able to get away with that! Barbara and I always used to say that we may not make a lot of money doing what we do, but we get to meet some very interesting people and have some pretty neat experiences.

As I’ve said a lot lately, I’m kind of burnt out on hockey. But it does still help me pay my bills, so I continue to pay at least some attention. I may not watch very much these days — it’s not my job to do that anymore — but it turns out that I still enjoy poking around in hockey history.

Next weekend, I’ll be attending the Annual General Meeting of the Society for International Hockey Research (SIHR) being held in Windsor, Ontario. (That’s the Victoria Day weekend for those you in Canada, or the “they have a holiday before Memorial Day?!?” weekend for you in the United States.)

In the most recent edition of the SIHR Bulletin, Bill Sproule of Houghton, Michigan, posted the following picture he’d recently come across of the 1914-15 Portland Rosebuds of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association…

picture

In this photo, Ernie “Moose” Johnson (third from the left) can clearly be seen wearing a leather football helmet. Bill’s accompanying story dealt with the well-told early history of helmets in hockey, which is always said to have begun with George Owen — a former Harvard football star — of the Boston Bruins in 1928-29. (It appears that football players began wearing helmets as early as 1893!) Bill rightfully wonders if Moose Johnson should be credited as the first pro hockey player to wear a helmet.

Now — surprise, surprise! — I have some doubts about the George Owen story. If he did wear a helmet during his rookie season in 1928-29 (and he may have), it certainly wasn’t widely publicized. Coincidently, when Owen played his first NHL game in Canada against the Canadiens on January 10, 1929, the Montreal Gazette had a story about a player named Nick Carter (aka Fred Carter) wearing a leather rugby football helmet to protect a cut on his head when his Canadian National Railway team faced the Bell Telephone team in a Railway-Telephone Hockey League game (I’m not kidding!) at the Forum the night before. In a story about hockey helmets following the death of Bill Masterton that appeared in The Boston Globe on January 18, 1968, veteran sportswriter Harold Kaese noted that Jack Culhane of Boston College wore a helmet playing hockey during the 1920s. So guys were definitely wearing them that far back, and it was making news when they did.

Whether or not George Owen wore a helmet as a pro hockey player during his rookie season in 1928-29, he definitely wore one during the 1930 NHL playoffs — but so did his Boston defensemates Lionel Hitchman and Eddie Shore. Hitchman, in fact, had already worn a helmet in the regular-season finale to protect a broken jaw, and the article below from the Montreal Gazette on March 20, 1930, mentions that Shore “has worn a headgear in the past.”

Bruins

During the Bruins’ rough opening-round series against the Montreal Maroons, John Hallahan of The Boston Globe noted that “Owen had a brand new one on that made him look something like a halfback.” If it was brand new, perhaps he’d been wearing an older helmet previously? If so, I’ve yet to see that story. And, if Moose Johnson was wearing a helmet during the 1914-15 season, he may well have been the first pro hockey player ever to wear one. But how come?

A brief search through old newspapers turned up the fact that Johnson (like Lionel Hitchman) had suffered a fractured jaw. He was injured either in a practice leading up to, or the pre-game warmup right before, Portland’s first road game of the 1914-15 PCHA season in Victoria, British Columbia, on December 15, 1914. Game stories make it clear that Johnson played for a while with his head bandaged and The Oregon Daily Journal of January 10, 1915, confirms that Johnson had been wearing a helmet in games. Another story from the same paper on January 24 notes that his jaw had finally healed to the point where Johnson might be ready to discard his headgear.

There’s nothing in the papers that claims Moose Johnson was the first pro hockey player to wear a helmet, but he was certainly wearing one long before George Owen. Admittedly, I’m not sure how a helmet that sits on top of your head protects the jaw on the bottom of your head — although I suppose the ear flaps on a football-style helmet help. But what I found most interesting of all was that sportswriters were already taking shots at the relative toughness (or lack-there-of) of baseball players versus hockey players as long ago as 1915, as this Oregon Daily Journal clipping from the January 10, 1915 edition confirms…

story

Playoff Payoffs

I recently had a very pleasant lunch with someone who asked me why I hadn’t been writing about hockey lately. His question was part of his larger concern for how I’ve been doing. As I’ve been saying all along, in the big picture, I feel that I’m doing fine. Or, at least as fine as can be expected.

So, my being depressed or not being depressed isn’t why I haven’t been writing about hockey. I actually have been writing quite a bit about hockey. I’ve written a new children’s book for Scholastic which will be out this fall, and I’ve done some other writing for a project by another friend whose work I’ve always admired. But the thing is, I’m kind of burnt out on hockey and still unhappy about certain ways in which the NHL Guide came to an end. So I haven’t bothered to write about hockey unless I’m getting paid. Still, I do find that I’ve enjoyed talking about hockey history when I’ve had the chance. So, I figured maybe it was time to post a story again. Because you can always find echoes of the past in anything new in hockey…

With upsets and more potential upsets abounding in the playoffs already, I read recently that this year marks the first time since NHL Expansion in 1967–68 that the top-ranked teams in both Conferences (or Divisions as it used to be) have been eliminated in the first round. The top teams in each Conference aren’t guaranteed to be the top two teams in the overall standings, but this year the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Calgary Flames did indeed rank 1–2 and yet both were bounced quickly.

Bracket
First-round results from the 2019 NHL playoffs.

Even before expansion, such a double elimination was very rare. In the 25 years from 1942–43 through 1966–67, there were only two times when teams that finished 1–2 atop the six-team standings got knocked out in the first round of the playoffs. In 1964, third-place Toronto and fourth-place Detroit eliminated Montreal and Chicago before the Maple Leafs defeated the Red Wings to win the Stanley Cup. Prior to that, in 1961, third-place Chicago and fourth-place Detroit knocked off Montreal and Toronto before the Blackhawks (still written as Black Hawks back then) beat the Red Wings in the finals. That’s it.

Prior to the so-called “Original Six” era, the NHL featured between eight and ten teams playing in two divisions for 12 seasons from 1926–27 through 1937–38. Never in that time did the top teams from both divisions get eliminated in the opening round of the playoffs … but that was because it was impossible under the playoff formats at that time.

In 1927 and 1928, first-place teams got a first-round bye in a format very similar to the way the Canadian Football League playoffs have usually operated. In 1928, both first-place teams from the regular season (the Montreal Canadiens and the Boston Bruins) came off their short first-round layoff and were eliminated in the division finals. After pulling off those upsets, the second-place New York Rangers then faced the second-place Montreal Maroons in the Stanley Cup Final. The Rangers won.

format
The Ottawa Citizen on September 24, 1928, reports on the new NHL
playoff format and other changes heading into the 1928–29 season.

There were those who wondered if the time off in the first round dulled the two division champions, and the NHL certainly wasn’t happy with the fact that neither first-place team got to play for the Stanley Cup. So Art Ross and Charles Adams of the Boston Bruins proposed a new playoff format that was accepted for the 1928–29 season. With a few tweaks, it would essentially remain in place until the 1942–43 season — although even with all the complaints about the current playoff system, this one looks awfully strange from a modern perspective.

The new format basically created a two-tier playoff in which the first-place team from the Canadian Division faced the first-place team in the American Division in a best-of-five series with the winner advancing directly to the Stanley Cup Final. Meanwhile, the second- and third-place teams essentially played their own short tournament to determine the other finalist.

“The change in the rules,” reported the Montreal Gazette on September 24, 1928, “guarantees that at least one of the teams winning the top rung at the end of the scheduled series will be assured of a place in the [finals].” Of course, it also guaranteed that one first-place team would be eliminated! But it was impossible to eliminate them both. And it did create a viable way of keeping all teams active in a six-team playoff format.

Leafs
The past is a foreign place! Gordie Drillon gets a haircut and manicure
before scoring the series-winning goal in overtime for the Maple Leafs
over the Bruins in 1938. Turk Broda relaxes in his Boston hotel room.

Another historic note regarding the early ouster of Tampa Bay this year is that it marks the first time in the post-Expansion era that the team that finished first overall in the regular-season standings was eliminated from the playoffs without winning a single game. This has also happened previously, in earlier days of NHL history when series were only two, three or five games long, but it hasn’t happened since 1938. That year, the Toronto Maple Leafs (who’d finished atop the Canadian Division, but only third overall in the NHL standings) swept the first-place Boston Bruins in three straight games.

That 1938 victory over Boston offers something of a cautionary tale to Toronto fans who believe Tampa’s loss and the other upsets clear an easy path to the Finals for the Maple Leafs if they should get past the Bruins tonight. There were upsets aplenty during the 1938 playoffs as well, and a Toronto team that should have easily defeat Chicago for the Stanley Cup lost to what will likely forever be the team with the worst record (14-25-9 in a 48-game season) ever to win it.

But I’m guessing Toronto fans will be happy to take their chances if the Maple Leafs can just beat the Bruins!

Barbara, Wally and The Great Escape

Even before the recent change in the stories I’ve posted to this web site, much of what I wrote —even some of the nerdiest of the hockey nerd stuff — was for Barbara. As I’ve said before, a big part of my enjoyment in all this was to see how she’d react. Quirky just hasn’t been as much fun without her.

This story — while not nearly as “romantic” as some of my recent ones — is definitely for Barbara. But, as is often the case, you have to let me work my way around to it…

This past weekend, the British and Polish air forces honored the 75th anniversary of the Great Escape — the actual breakout from Stalag Luft III, the Nazi prisoner-of-war camp in the town of Zagan (sometimes written as Sagan), now in eastern Poland. The events took place in the late night and early morning hours of March 24 and 25, 1944.

 Us
The movie came out in 1963. Barbara (on the right in the center photo) is with her
friend Peggy around then. That’s me with my father about the same time!

I won’t go into much of the story, but the Allied air force prisoners at Stalag Luft III had hoped to free some 200 men through a series of tunnels dug under the camp. They knew it was unlikely that any would make their way back to England, but they hoped to do as much as possible to disrupt the German forces who would have to chase them down. Due to a series of unforeseen circumstances, only 76 men got out before the Germans discovered what was going on.

Over the next few weeks, all but three men were recaptured. Hitler was so angry he wanted all 73 men shot. Other German authorities pointed out that an action showing such blatant disregard for the Geneva Conventions might endanger the lives of German prisoners held by the Allies. Even so, Hitler personally ordered that “more than half” should be shot. In the end, 50 men were killed. It’s the deaths of those 50 that was commemorated in Poland this past weekend.

Barbara first learned of this story — as did so many other people — when the Hollywood movie The Great Escape came out in 1963. Even then (and ever since she was a little girl), if Barbara was interested in something, she was INTERESTED! It wasn’t enough just to see the movie — which, of course, she did — over and over. She needed to know more! So, she got herself a copy of the 1950 book The Great Escape by Australian Paul Brickhill, who’d been held at Stalag Luft III during the War.

Covers
Barbara told the story of Wally Floody in her book, The Tunnel King. The Desert Hawk
is about Stocky Edwards, one of the leading Canadian aces of World War II.
She worried about glorifying war in books for children, but felt it was important
to put a human face on what happened.

It was through Brickhill’s book that Barbara first learned about Wally Floody, the Canadian who was so integral to the tunnel construction for the Great Escape. (The movie is actually a very accurate description of events – up to a point! – although there were a lot more Canadians, and a lot fewer Americans, who were involved.)

Wally Floody (the Charles Bronson character in the movie is based loosely upon him) lived most of his life in Toronto, not far from where Barbara lived most of her Toronto life. Older accounts of him always claimed that Wally was a mining engineer in Canada, and that’s why he was in charge of the tunnels for the Great Escape. But that was just a bit of British prejudice. The Brits simply couldn’t wrap their heads around the fact that someone who’d actually worked in the mines might one day become a fighter pilot. Wally worked in both Timmins and Kirkland Lake as a young man, although his experience with hard-rock mining there was very much different from tunnelling through the sandy soil beneath Stalag Luft III.

Barbara always believed that Wally’s true story was worth telling, and she finally got to write about him in her 2004 book The Tunnel King, which was a big success. Floody had died in 1989, and Barbara regretted that she’d lived in Toronto for 20 years by then and had never tried to meet him. Wally’s wife, Betty, died just around the time that Barbara started working on the book, but she did get  a lot of assistance from Wally’s sister, Catherine, and his son Brian. They were both more than happy to share stories – and photographs – of their brother and father.

WallyBetty
Wally Floody (left) wears his cap at the proper rakish angle for a
fighter pilot. He married his wife, Betty, very early in his air force career.

Just recently, I received a very nice letter from a man who works at the Museum of Northern History in Kirkland Lake. The city is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, and the museum is interested in telling Wally’s story among their centennial celebrations. His letter gave me the occasion to get back in touch with Brian Floody, and it got me thinking about all this again.

One of Barbara’s nerdiest interests was her love of movie soundtracks. Not just songs, but the full score. If a movie she liked happened to be on television and she was in the other room, I used to like to turn it up loud and see how long it took before she’d say, “Is that … To Kill a Mockingbird?” or whatever it was. When it was The Great Escape – no matter where it was in the movie – it only took a few seconds. And there was no question necessary…

Set
Wally Floody (in the centre, with the tie) served as the technical advisor for the movie.
Brian Floody had some amazing pictures in an album from that time. This is my favorite.

Stars
Wally with the film’s biggest stars, James Garner and Steve McQueen.
Betty was much more taken with Garner, who signed the photo.

Bronson
Wally with Charles Bronson, who played Danny “The Tunnel King.”

And Then Your Life Turns Upside Down

One year ago next Tuesday – on March 12, 2018 – Barbara was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Five months to the day later, she was gone. The truth is, that’s four months longer than we expected at first. A friend of my mother’s had just recently been diagnosed with cancer and died within three weeks. We pretty much thought the same thing would happen … even though they told us that pancreatic cancer isn’t the death sentence it used to be.

It may not be. But it ain’t great.

Barbara and I are both researchers. We each found out very quickly that the statistics show close to 75 percent of patients still don’t survive the first year. Plenty of people told us stories about friends who were alive 10, 12, 14 years after their diagnosis. But the numbers show less than 10 percent get that kind of time.

That’s not the only reason Barbara was pessimistic.

For one thing, she never felt like she was going to have a long life. I don’t really know why, except that many of her relatives died young. More than that, she just hadn’t been feeling well for long enough that it was easy to believe she’d been sick for awhile. It wasn’t anything dramatic. Often just low energy. But, nearly a year earlier, at the end of March in 2017, her doctor thought she’d found something she didn’t like. Barbara researched that too, and the only thing it could be at her age was cancer. She also expected the worst then, but it turned out, after a few tests and three weeks of anxiety, that it was nothing at all.

Then, just a couple of months later, in June, Barbara’s blood sugar levels shot up.

“You’ve got diabetes,” her doctor said.

Barbara always knew she might. Her father was a diabetic, and, I think, others in the family were as well. Doctors had always told her she was likely to develop it, so there was little reason for doubt. It wasn’t so bad that it would require insulin or other medications. She just needed to modify her diet and get more exercise.

Houses
To keep herself motivated, Barbara began to take pictures with her phone of
the houses and gardens she’d pass on her walks. She’d post them on Facebook.

Barbara ate about as little as any person I’ve ever known. Apparently, she’d always been a bad eater. It was a constant source of anxiety for her parents when she was little. But she did like to eat candy; peach rings and jelly beans. Ice cream too. Now, she cut it all out, cold turkey. And she started to walk. Every day. Three to five kilometers. Her weight came down, and her blood sugar normalized.

By August, Barbara had lost about 20 pounds. She was feeling better than she had for years. And she looked great! But then, when she hoped to stop losing the weight, and just maintain it, it kept coming off. Nothing too startling at first. I didn’t even notice. But a pound or two pretty regularly. She was sure that something was wrong … but it’s hard to get anyone to take weight loss seriously.

“What, you can’t keep the pounds on…? Wish I had that problem! Ha, ha.”

At the end of February in 2018, Barbara got the flu. (It was a bad year for the flu last year.) Her case wasn’t too terrible, but after she got better, the weight melted off. There were other problems too. And now she was really starting to look sick. So, on Friday, March 9 (I was in Brampton, giving an author talk to school kids), Barbara had a friend take her to the hospital. She waited forever in Emergency. So long, that I was back home and spent the last couple of hours with her.

“It’s going to be bad,” she kept saying. Trying to prepare me. I didn’t think so.

“It’s just the diabetes. It’s not properly under control. You cut out the candy, but you never really replaced the calories. You’re just not eating enough. We’ll get it figured out.”

Happy
After three months of walking, Barbara was feeling great – and looking great!

Unless the young doctor who finally saw us that day was the best actor in the world, she thought the same thing too. She filled out some forms to enroll us in the diabetes education program at the hospital. But she also wanted us back at the hospital on Monday so they could run a few tests. “Just to rule out anything else.”

So, we went back to the hospital on Monday afternoon, March 12, for an ultra sound and a CT scan. They told us that, since the tests were ordered by an Emergency Room doctor, they would have the results for us in Emergency … if we wanted to wait. It was another LONG stay, but how could we not?

“It’s going to be bad,” Barbara said again.

I still didn’t think so. Even when they asked her if she had someone with her for the news, I wasn’t too worried. “It’s just going to be a lot to take in,” I said. “There’ll be a lot they need to tell you, and they want to know you’re not alone.”

I think she may have told me I was being naive.

I guess I was. But that changed a short time later.

We were still sitting in Emergency, waiting, when the triage nurses changed shifts. I watched as the new one coming on duty looked around the room while the old one explained the situations with the various patients. I couldn’t hear anything, but the way they looked at us, it was obvious this was going to be bad.

Barbara went up to them.

“I can see it in your faces. It’s something bad. Can’t you just tell me?”

They apologized, and said it had to be a doctor. But, yes, it was going to be bad.

It wasn’t too much longer before a doctor finally took us inside. It wasn’t the type of room they normally take you to in Emergency. It was a small office.

He didn’t sugar coat it: “We can’t be 100 percent sure yet. You’re going to have to come back for more tests. But the only thing it really could be is pancreatic cancer.”

I don’t think we had any questions for him. It was too soon, and even Barbara seemed shocked it was that bad. He told us they would schedule the tests and that we could stay in the office as long as we needed. I don’t think we stayed very long.

Four
Barbara was energized by the news that Amanda and Brent were engaged. She was so glad to see them when they came to visit us later in March before our family’s big Passover seder.

I don’t remember anything about the drive home. (It’s, literally, only five minutes.) I remember how hungry I’d been before, but I don’t think we had any dinner. I just remember us sitting on the couch in our den, side by side. I don’t remember much of what we talked about. I don’t remember if we told any family that night. (I’m pretty sure I called my mother.) I don’t remember going to sleep either, but I know we did. Then we woke up the next morning and sat on the couch again.

She cried a little. I probably cried more. And then we thought, “We have to do SOMETHING.” So, I called her family doctor and told the receptionist what had happened. My memory of that is that she was quite good on the phone, but that there weren’t any appointments until 9:10am on Thursday. (This was Tuesday morning.) I booked it, but I told her we were five minutes away and that if ANYONE canceled before then, I wanted their appointment and that we could be there on a moment’s notice. That didn’t happen … and I don’t honestly remember how we got through the rest of the day.

By Wednesday, Barbara was yellow with jaundice. More yellow than you can probably imagine. With a sort of golden tinge. I’ve never seen anything like it. Again, I don’t remember how we got through the day. But, on Thursday morning, we saw the doctor. There was nothing, really, that she could do. I think she prescribed something to help Barbara relax. And she got the ball rolling on all the appointments we’d need at the hospital.

Things happened very quickly after that.

Tests and procedures and poking and prodding. Meetings with the oncologist. More scans. A stent to improve liver function. (Jaundice gone!) A biopsy. (100% official now.) Some of the procedures were difficult. Barbara was hospitalized for a few days. It was during that time that Amanda called to say that she and Brent had gotten engaged. You’ve never seen a person’s mood change so quickly and completely as Barbara’s did then!

The tumour was not very large. However, it was in a dangerous position, wrapped around the Portal vein, which made it inoperable. That being the case, Barbara said she didn’t want chemotherapy. Why bother? But her doctor explained that, while it was a long shot, chemo might shrink the tumor enough that they would be able to remove her entire pancreas. She would truly be a diabetic then — that had been a red herring, by the way; it was probably pancreatic cancer all along (the fact that it’s so hard to detect is partly what makes it so deadly) — but at least there was a chance. Only about one in five people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer have it discovered early enough that chemo is even an option … so Barbara felt she had to try.

Fierce
The morning after her first chemo session. Barbara had her game face on! She’d been
bloodied and bruised by some of the procedures to get her ready. Her hair, in fact,
is tangled with her own blood. She couldn’t wash it out for a couple more days until a
home care nurse removed all the chemo-related attachments you can see on her chest.

Chemotherapy began on April 6. We really knew nothing about it then, except that chemo makes you nauseas and you lose your hair. They told us the drugs Barbara got wouldn’t cause hair loss, but she was likely to become nauseas — even though (I swear!) she hadn’t thrown up since 1968.

We were told her chemo would be very aggressive; a heavy dose of several drugs, administered over a five-hour period. Then she’d have a “poison baby bottle” full of more drugs attached to her chest that she wore in a sling under her clothes at home for the next 46 hours. This would all repeat every two weeks until she’d had six sessions.

Chemo drugs don’t actually make you sick at the time they’re given. The effects creep up on you over the next few days until they wipe you out. But Barbara never did throw up! She did get very tired, and she  had some other horrible stomach-related side effects. There were good days, too, where friends might come over, or the two of us would go out for lunch, yet there were plenty of days when she could hardly get out of bed or when the other side effects got really awful. Enough that, one time early, and then again after the fifth session in mid June, the oncologist took her off chemo to give her body a break. We were going to take all of July off and then start up again in August with a different combination of drugs. She’d have to have them weekly this time, but a least the new drugs shouldn’t make her so sick.

Gardens
With Josh and family at Edward’s Gardens the day after our appointment
at Princess Margaret Hospital. This would be the last truly care-free day.

During the break, our oncologist referred us to Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto for a second opinion. We had an appointment there on July 18. They explained in more detail why the tumour was still inoperable, and they concurred with what had been done in Owen Sound so far, as well as with the new plan for going forward. They had some other suggestions too, but they said Barbara wasn’t sick enough yet for any of their clinical trials.

So, things actually seemed pretty good. Barbara was feeling much better after nearly a month without chemo. But the trip to Toronto exhausted her. She slept for nearly 48 hours when we got back. I slept for nearly 24 hours myself, and I was the healthy one! Still, things didn’t seem too bad. Until, suddenly, they did.

By the end of July, Barbara was no longer feeling sick because of chemo … but she was dying because of cancer.

ToadNear the end, we took Barbara around the grounds behind the hospital in a wheelchair.
Amanda found this toad  in the road. Barbara (and her children) loved little critters.

I’ve often wondered since August if the treatment was worth it. Would things have been more peaceful without the chemo and all its side effects? But, without it, Barbara may not even have gotten those five months. Maybe she woudn’t have felt so sick at first, but she probably would have been in pain more quickly. She never experienced any pain at all until late in July. That’s when they discovered the cancer had spread to her liver.

I think it was for the best that it went so quickly after that.

At least we had time to move up the wedding.

Wedding
Amanda and Brent’s wedding in the chapel at the Owen Sound Hospital was so very lovely.

By then, I was making plans for a wedding and a funeral. I don’t recommend it if you can avoid it. But if you ever have to, I hope you’ll have the same love and support from family and friends that I had.

It made all the difference.

It still does.

Six Months in a Leaky Boat…

I don’t know how much longer I’ll continue to count in months. Maybe up to 24, like a baby? Probably up to 12. We’ll see.

It’s not like I’ve been drowning in sadness. As I’ve said before, it’s still me. I still laugh. I still have fun. I still see, text, and talk to, my family and friends. And for someone who carries a tune as badly as I do, I still do an awful lot of singing out loud when I’m alone. Much of the time, it involves changing the words of songs to incorporate the names of our cats. But don’t worry. If that sounds like I’m losing it, it’s been going on for a long time.

(Speaking of songs, if you’re not around my age and don’t know it, the title of this post comes from a 1982 song by Split Enz … though I always liked this one from 1980 better.)

Still, it hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing. I know that there’s an underlying sadness, probably even depression, pretty much every day. Not enough that I don’t get out of bed in the morning, but certainly enough that I don’t get started on anything in much of a hurry. (Not that I ever really did!)

The sadness can still strike at almost any time. These days, it’s often when I’m cooking something we both used to enjoy. We shared a lot of kitchen duties, so I’m always aware of it when I’m doing the parts that she used to do. And, I’m way more likely to tear up when watching a movie or TV show. I mean, The Kominsky Method was great, but it doesn’t help that Alan Arkin’s wife dies of cancer in the first episode. Seems like an awful lot of people are dying on TV, in movies, and plays these days. I guess they always were, but it didn’t used to affect me the same way.

It’s hard for me to believe it, but yesterday marked six months since Barbara died. Tomorrow will be the first Valentine’s Day without her since our first one together in 1993. Now, I’ll admit that Valentine’s Day has always struck me as a Hallmark holiday … but that doesn’t mean we didn’t do things to mark the occasion. Barbara always believed in marking occasions!

Since we both worked from home, we began to go out for long, late lunches on February 14 instead of going out for dinner. It became a new tradition that we liked a lot. We’d often have the restaurant to ourselves, and it was lovely. This year, I expected I’d, literally, be by myself. Turns out (weather permitting), I’ll be having lunch with one friend, and dinner with three others. Obviously, it won’t be the same. I’ll be thinking of Barbara, and it’ll be strange. And sad. But that’s not always so terrible. As I’ve read a lot lately, “Grief is just love with nowhere to go…”

Over the years, I signed almost every card I gave to Barbara the same way. Didn’t matter if it was a birthday, an anniversary or Valentine’s Day:

“I Love You … Now and Always.”

I do. And I will.

 Present
Pretty sure this is the first present I ever gave to Barbara. Valentine’s Day, 1993.

Early
Us. Much Younger. Very much in love. My brother Jonathan
and Sheri’s wedding at our family cottage in 1997.

Last
Us. Older. Still very much in love. Amanda and Brent’s wedding, in
the hospital in Owen Sound. This is the last picture of us together.

Cards
These are the cards we exchanged last year on Valentine’s Day.

 

 

On The Road Again…

This Friday, my brothers David and Jonathan, Jonathan’s son Jorey, and I will be making the short road trip to Detroit to see the Maple Leafs play the Red Wings. We’ve made a couple of trips like this before, but in the summertime to see the Blue Jays and to visit Cooperstown for Roberto Alomar’s induction.

Jorey
The first picture I ever took with my iPhone. David,
me, Jonathan, and Jorey at a Jays game in 2016.

For me, I’m pretty sure this will be the first time I’ve seen the Maple Leafs on the road. First time I’ve seen them live anywhere since Barbara and I went to a game so long ago that I can’t remember exactly when except that it was at least 2006. It was Montreal at Toronto and she was dressed in a vintage Canadiens sweater, me in vintage Maple Leafs. It’s hard to believe, but I think the  last time I was actually at a hockey game anywhere was in the fall of 2015. Barbara and I were in Boston and the New England Sports Network (NESN) hosted us in a small private box next to their set where I was to be interviewed about my book on Art Ross during the first intermission.

Boston
Photos by Barbara from our box at the game in Boston.

This is my second trip of late. Earlier this month, I spent two weeks in Florida. The weather was perfect, and, as I’ve been telling people, the biggest decision I faced each day was “should I get my tan on the beach or by the pool?” (Sure beats the current dilemma of “should I shovel the driveway now or wait until it’s completely stopped snowing!”)

I rode down with my friend Jeff, who has a place on Anna Marie Island, near Sarasota. He was a great host, and I think I was a good guest. So many people had been telling me after Barbara died that I should get away for a while and lie on a beach somewhere. I’m not sure I actually would have if Jeff hadn’t offered. It really was a wonderful break.

Florida
Me on the street in Ybor City, Tampa, about two weeks ago.

Barbara loved to travel. Me, not so much. And, really, for the stupidest of reasons. I used to say, “I don’t want to go away anywhere if I have to come back.” By that, I meant you spend a week or two away, and then you come home to a pile of bills, maybe or maybe not some household disaster that needs your immediate attention, and definitely a ton of work you need to catch up on. Two days back, and it’s like you were never away. So, why bother? And, let’s be honest, I was always worried about spending the money…

These days, you can pay your bills online and I don’t really have any work to catch up on. (Though I did just recently agree to write some short hockey pieces for a friend whose work I admire.) Even so, as great as the Florida trip really was, it did make me realize all over again how alone I am when I’m at home. (Don’t worry  too much; I’ve got lots of friends looking out for me!)

It felt nice to get away, but it was strange to be on vacation without Barbara. No matter how much I griped about it before agreeing to go somewhere, we always, always, had a great time. Didn’t matter where we went, or how long we stayed. Here are a handful of pictures from some of our trips over the years…

 Calif
The last big trip Barbara and I took was to Los Angeles and San Francisco
two years ago right about now. I’d never been to L.A. before. We’d both
been to San Francisco, including on our honeymoon. This trip was a belated
20th Anniversary / early Barbara milestone birthday present.

Early
We didn’t have to go far to have fun. The top picture is overlooking the Niagara River
at Lewiston during a weekend in Niagara Falls in 1993. The lower picture is an ostrich farm
in Prince Edward County (near Kingston) about 10 years later. It did NOT smell great!

Disney
One of the best trips we ever had was taking Amanda to Disney World in 2000. That’s
me and Amanda in the pool at our hotel on the left and her with Tigger on the right.

Mass
In the acknowledgements to my Art Ross book, I thanked his granddaughter
Valerie  for saving Barbara and me from the worst hotel we ever almost
spent the night in near Williamstown, MA. This is where Valerie took us instead!

Maine
An earlier Ross-related trip. Us with our friend Kathy in Maine.

Chicago
Chicago. Late in August, 2013. We loved it there!

USAF
Cheesy blue screen photos are us! The Red Baron’s Fokker triplane
and Air Force One at the U.S. Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio.

La Brea
More blue screen fun! The George C. Page Museum at the La Brea tar pits on our
Los Angeles trip. The polar bear is actually real! (Or was.) It’s at the Natural History
Museum in L.A. where we spent an afternoon on a pouring rainy day.

Happy Holidays … And a Better New Year!

I don’t know how many really do or don’t, but I was never a Jewish child that wished he could celebrate Christmas. Wasn’t jealous, or envious, or whatever. (I’m not as an adult either.) I’ve always understood that I live in a country where Christian is the dominant culture. Personally, I like all the Christmas music in stores at this time of year! And I certainly don’t mind if people wish me a Merry Christmas. But I’m Jewish. Given how multi-cultural our continent has become, I generally go with Happy Holidays myself. (Or Happy Birthday, since December 25 is when my brother David was born.)

Hanukkah is a fine little holiday. I certainly enjoyed the presents I got when I was a kid. I still enjoy the gifts I get now. But Hanukkah is not “Jewish Christmas.” It’s a minor holiday in the Jewish year that just happens to be at the same time as Christmas so it gets the attention. (I do believe that  gift-giving has long been a part of Hanukkah, but I’m sure that it’s gone over-the-top in modern times in an effort to keep up with Christmas. Not that I’m really complaining.)

Hanukkah
Presents for the family Hanukkah party at my mother’s house, 1998.

All this being said, I’ve always enjoyed the many Jewish traditions at Christmas. Movies on Christmas Eve! Chinese food! And, for our family during most of my growing-up years, skiing on Christmas Day on slopes that were practically empty and without lift lines!

When Barbara and I very quickly reached the point where we knew that marriage was in our future, she told me she would like to convert. There was never any pressure from me or my family; it was something she wanted to do. The only thing my parents would have asked was that she respect our family traditions. Apparently there’s a relative in my extended family whose non-Jewish wife once shouted, “three cheers for the Baby Jesus!” at a family Hanukkah party. It didn’t go over well! (One added bonus of Barbara becoming Jewish was that there were few decisions for Josh and Amanda about the holidays: Christmas with their father and his family, Hanukkah with their mother and me and my family. The same with Easter and Passover.)

The first Christmas Barbara and I spent together was in 1992. I cooked steaks, peas and mashed potatoes on Christmas Eve. On Christmas Day, we watched Gone With the Wind on television. Not really anyone’s idea of tradition, but certainly something I’ll always remember. The next year, we saw Schindler’s List on December 24 … but it turned out to be the only year we ever saw a movie together on Christmas Eve.

Barbara’s mother very quickly came to love the Jewish traditions of my family. Like Barbara, her mother was an only child and they both enjoyed being part of a large, warm family. Alice would join us for Seders, High Holidays and Hanukkah parties, but she never gave up her Christmases. Why should she?

In 1994, Alice invited Barbara and me to her apartment for Christmas Eve and then back for dinner on Christmas Day. (My parents came too.) Barbara’s father died in November of 1995, and there was no way we’d leave Alice alone for Christmas after that. Christmas Eve at her apartment followed by dinner on Christmas Day in one of Toronto’s finer hotels became our new tradition. After my father died, my mother sometimes joined us. It was always very nice … but Barbara and I did miss the movies!

Xmas
Christmas dinner at the Royal York Hotel, 1999.

After moving to Owen Sound in 2006 (Alice moved up here about 18 months later), we were all invited to Christmas with friends a time or two, but as Alice’s health declined, Barbara and I began making Christmas dinner for her at our house. Even after she passed away in 2012, we continued to make a small Christmas dinner for ourselves. We didn’t exchange gifts, but I always made Barbara a Christmas stocking. It usually consisted of some chocolates, an orange, and a special-edition magazine. Not much, but she looked forward to it each year. I did too. It’s definitely going to be strange this year without that.

So, Happy Holidays everyone and may 2019 be a better year for us all. I’ve been very touched over the last little while by the reception these personal stories have received. I don’t know how often I’ll keep it up going forward. My feeling is, I won’t write much about sports – unless someone is paying me to do it! – but I will continue to write, so you never know what you might see in these pages.